Just because a game helped shape a genre, doesn’t always mean it’s good. Sure, the likes of Super Mario Bros. and Tetris are timeless classics that remain entertaining even today, but not all influential games are so lucky. Look for no further proof than Karate Champ, a title which helped shape the fighting genre in its early days, before Street Fighter added depth and fun to the genre.
In Karate Champ’s defense, it probably fared a little better in its original arcade form, in which one or two players would take on their opponent using two different joysticks to perform moves. It still would lack substance, seeing as both fighters are identical in appearance (save for gi color) and moves, and there’s no deeper mechanics to speak of than “land the first hit.” But at least the moves might be at least a little responsive to the joystick controls.
I can’t say that’s the case for sure, seeing as I’ve never even seen a Karate Champ Arcade cabinet. But surely something was lost in the translation in bringing the game to the NES, because Karate Champ can be called nothing short of unplayable.
As stated, the battles really are as simple as landing the first hit to score a point. Score two points and you move on to the next fight. It’s basically just rinse and repeat from there, because every fight is exactly the same. The player (or player 1 if you’re exposing another human being to the game for some reason) is dressed in the white gi. While the CPU (or player 2) is in the red gi. The game couldn’t even be bothered to change the opponent’s gi color per level. The scenery changes (though each stage is just as ugly as the last), but that’s about it.
Things go from shallow to outright disastrous, however, once you try to control the game. Karate Champ on NES is up there with Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure, World Games (both also NES) and Dark Castle (Genesis) for the title of most uncontrollable game.
Simply put, you can’t control Karate Champ. You can press buttons, and the character will react, but there seems to be no rhyme or reason behind the action the character decides to make. You’ll walk towards your opponent and attack, only for the character to perform a leg sweep behind him. Or your enemy might get behind you, and you try to attack him by holding back on the D-pad and striking, only for your character to kick in front of him. It seems no matter what direction you’re holding or which button you press (both A and B perform attacks), the player has no say-so as to which action the character performs. Winning a match ultimately comes down to sheer luck then. I had my best performances simply by standing still and hitting one of the attack buttons once my opponent got close enough. It didn’t always work, of course, but it seemed to give me the best chance of actually landing an attack.
On top of all this, Karate Champ also suffers from some extreme technical issues. Sure, a lot of NES games are susceptible to such technical problems, but Karate Champ seems to constantly be plagued by graphical glitches, freeze-ups and crashes. These issues turn what is already a mechanically unplayable game into a technically unplayable one.
Perhaps the arcade versions of Karate Champ helped pave the way for the fighter, but no doubt pretty much everything that was created in its wake surpassed it by a great margin. And the NES port of Karate Champ may have actually devolved the experience all the more. At the very least, the two player mode may have you and a friend chuckling for a few minutes as you randomly swipe away at each other and see who manages to get lucky and actually hit the other. But it’s a short-lived joke, if anything. The bigger joke may just be how a game this broken eventually lead us to Street Fighter.